Shelf life

Chinese actor, translator, and eventual government minister Ying Ruocheng in his first professional stage role, early 1950s. Chinese actor, translator, and eventual government minister Ying Ruocheng in his first professional stage role, early 1950s. (''Voices Carry'')
By Jan Gardner
February 15, 2009
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Knight moves
A bagpiper playing outside a Cambridge bookstore on Saturday will herald the launch of a historical fantasy novel set in medieval Europe. In "The Book of Tormod: A Templar's Apprentice" (Scholastic), a clairvoyant Scottish boy struggles to harness his extraordinary powers.

The young-adult novel by Kat Black, a resident of Lynn, draws on the real-life history of the Knights Templar, the powerful order of warrior monks who disbanded in 1307. The order's tremendous wealth and ships have never been located.

Black, long fascinated by Templar lore, was encouraged to write the novel by her mentor, Walter Lorraine, the legendary children's book editor with whom she worked as a designer for 15 years. Before he retired from Houghton Mifflin in 2007, Lorraine helped promote the careers of many notable writers and illustrators, including David Macaulay and Chris Van Allsburg.

The party for Black's debut novel - the first in a series - begins at 5:30 p.m. at Porter Square Books, 25 White St. Look and listen for the bagpipes.

Adults in Wonderland
On Thursday, writers for the Harvard Lampoon will give a dramatic reading of "Alice's Adventures in Cambridge." The Lampoon's 1913 parody of the Lewis Carroll classic pokes fun at grade inflation and intellectual arrogance. The reading, at 7 p.m. at Harvard Book Store, around the corner from the Lampoon Castle, will celebrate the publication of a new edition by the History Press.

Curtain call
Ying Ruocheng made a name for himself on stage and screen, bridging the cultural divide between China and the United States. His friend playwright Arthur Miller called him "a man of double consciousness, Eastern and Western, literary and show business."

The new book "Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage During China's Revolution and Reform" (Rowman & Littlefield), by Ying Ruocheng and Claire Conceison, follows a number of dramatic arcs in the life of the Chinese actor and translator.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Ruocheng spent three years in prison. In 1983, he brought American theater to China, starring as Willy Loman in his translation of "Death of a Salesman." Subsequently he joined the Chinese government as a minister of culture and was introduced to Western audiences through his role in Bernardo Bertolucci's film "The Last Emperor."

Conceison met Ruocheng when she was a graduate student in Asian studies at Harvard. She offered to help him tell his life's story and spent summers taping interviews with him until his death, in 2003.

A scholar of modern Chinese history and theater who teaches at Tufts University, Conceison makes it clear that much about Ruocheng - including his years as a government informant - remains a mystery, leaving plenty of opportunity for future biographers.

Coming out
"Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration, January 20, 2009," by Elizabeth Alexander (Graywolf)

"The Second Opinion," by Michael Palmer (St. Martin's)

"Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives," by David Eagleman (Pantheon)

Pick of the week
Kenny Brechner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers, in Farmington, Maine, recommends "The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet," by Neil deGrasse Tyson (Norton): "This insider's account of the furor caused by Pluto's planetary demotion is so full of life and an appreciation for human foibles that one can't help but end up appreciating the Pluto debate not as a question of right or wrong, but as a splendid illustration of human nature."

Jan Gardner can be reached at

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